Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration

July 21, 1865

Original Text: 

James Russell Lowell, Under the Willows (Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1869): 254-75. Internet Archive

1Weak-winged is song,
2Nor aims at that clear-ethered height
3Whither the brave deed climbs for light:
4    We seem to do them wrong,
5Bringing our robin's-leaf to deck their hearse
6Who in warm life-blood wrote their nobler verse,
7Our trivial song to honor those who come
8With ears attuned to strenuous trump and drum,
9And shaped in squadron-strophes their desire,
10Live battle-odes whose lines were steel and fire:
11    Yet sometimes feathered words are strong,
12A gracious memory to buoy up and save
13From Lethe's dreamless ooze, the common grave
14    Of the unventurous throng.
15To-day our Reverend Mother welcomes back
16    Her wisest Scholars, those who understood
17The deeper teaching of her mystic tome,
18    And offered their fresh lives to make it good:
19        No lore of Greece or Rome,
20No science peddling with the names of things,
21Or reading stars to find inglorious fates,
22        Can lift our life with wings
23Far from Death's idle gulf that for the many waits,
24        And lengthen out our dates
25With that clear fame whose memory sings
26In manly hearts to come, and nerves them and dilates:
27Nor such thy teaching, Mother of us all!
28            Not such the trumpet-call
29            Of thy diviner mood,
30            That could thy sons entice
31From happy homes and toils, the fruitful nest
32Of those half-virtues which the world calls best,
33            Into War's tumult rude;
34            But rather far that stern device
35The sponsors chose that round thy cradle stood
36        In the dim, unventured wood,
37        The VERITAS that lurks beneath
38        The letter's unprolific sheath,
39    Life of whate'er makes life worth living,
40Seed-grain of high emprise, immortal food,
41    One heavenly thing whereof earth hath the giving.
42Many loved Truth, and lavished life's best oil
43    Amid the dust of books to find her,
44Content at last, for guerdon of their toil,
45    With the cast mantle she hath left behind her.
46        Many in sad faith sought for her,
47        Many with crossed hands sighed for her;
48        But these, our brothers, fought for her,
49        At life's dear peril wrought for her,
50        So loved her that they died for her,
51        Tasting the raptured fleetness
52        Of her divine completeness:
53            Their higher instinct knew
54Those love her best who to themselves are true,
55And what they dare to dream of dare to do;
56        They followed her and found her
57        Where all may hope to find,
58Not in the ashes of the burnt-out mind,
59But beautiful, with danger's sweetness round her;
60        Where faith made whole with deed
61        Breathes its awakening breath
62        Into the lifeless creed,
63        They saw her plumed and mailed,
64        With sweet stern face unveiled,
65And all-repaying eyes, look proud on them in death.
66Our slender life runs rippling by, and glides
67    Into the silent hollow of the past;
68        What is there that abides
69    To make the next age better for the last?
70        Is earth too poor to give us
71    Something to live for here that shall outlive us?
72        Some more substantial boon
73Than such as flows and ebbs with Fortune's fickle moon?
74            The little that we see
75            From doubt is never free;
76            The little that we do
77            Is but half-nobly true;
78            With our laborious hiving
79What men call treasure, and the gods call dross,
80    Life seems a jest of Fate's contriving,
81    Only secure in every one's conniving,
82A long account of nothings paid with loss,
83Where we poor puppets, jerked by unseen wires,
84    After our little hour of strut and rave,
85With all our pasteboard passions and desires,
86Loves, hates, ambitions, and immortal fires,
87    Are tossed pell-mell together in the grave.
88    But stay! no age was e'er degenerate,
89    Unless men held it at too cheap a rate,
90    For in our likeness still we shape our fate;
91        Ah, there is something here
92    Unfathomed by the cynic's sneer,
93    Something that gives our feeble light
94    A high immunity from Night,
95    Something that leaps life's narrow bars
96    To claim its birthright with the hosts of heaven;
97        A seed of sunshine that doth leaven
98    Our earthly dulness with the beams of stars,
99            And glorify our clay
100    With light from fountains elder than the Day;
101        A conscience more divine than we,
102        A gladness fed with secret tears,
103        A vexing, forward-reaching sense
104        Of some more noble permanence;
105            A light across the sea,
106    Which haunts the soul and will not let it be,
107Still glimmering from the heights of undegenerate years.
108            Whither leads the path
109            To ampler fates that leads?
110            Not down through flowery meads,
111            To reap an aftermath
112        Of youth's vainglorious weeds,
113        But up the steep, amid the wrath
114        And shock of deadly-hostile creeds,
115        Where the world's best hope and stay
116By battle's flashes gropes a desperate way,
117And every turf the fierce foot clings-to bleeds.
118        Peace hath her not ignoble wreath,
119        Ere yet the sharp, decisive word
120Light the black lips of cannon, and the sword
121            Dreams in its easeful sheath;
122But some day the live coal behind the thought,
123            Whether from Baäl's stone obscene,
124            Or from the shrine serene
125            Of God's pure altar brought,
126Bursts up in flame; the war of tongue and pen
127Learns with what deadly purpose it was fraught,
128And, helpless in the fiery passion caught,
129Shakes all the pillared state with shock of men:
130Some day the soft Ideal that we wooed
131Confronts us fiercely, foe-beset, pursued,
132And cries reproachful: "Was it, then, my praise,
133And not myself was loved? Prove now thy truth;
134I claim of thee the promise of thy youth;
135Give me thy life, or cower in empty phrase,
136The victim of thy genius, not its mate!"
137    Life may be given in many ways,
138    And loyalty to Truth be sealed
139As bravely in the closet as the field,
140        So bountiful is Fate;
141        But then to stand beside her,
142        When craven churls deride her,
143To front a lie in arms and not to yield,
144        This shows, methinks, God's plan
145        And measure of a stalwart man,
146        Limbed like the old heroic breeds,
147        Who stands self-poised on manhood's solid earth,
148    Not forced to frame excuses for his birth,
149Fed from within with all the strength he needs.
150Such was he, our Martyr-Chief,
151    Whom late the Nation he had led,
152    With ashes on her head,
153Wept with the passion of an angry grief:
154Forgive me, if from present things I turn
155To speak what in my heart will beat and burn,
156And hang my wreath on his world-honored urn.
157        Nature, they say, doth dote,
158        And cannot make a man
159        Save on some worn-out plan,
160        Repeating us by rote:
161For him her Old World moulds aside she threw,
162    And, choosing sweet clay from the breast
163        Of the unexhausted West,
164With stuff untainted shaped a hero new,
165Wise, steadfast in the strength of God, and true.
166        How beautiful to see
167Once more a shepherd of mankind indeed,
168Who loved his charge, but never loved to lead;
169One whose meek flock the people joyed to be,
170    Not lured by any cheat of birth,
171    But by his clear-grained human worth,
172And brave old wisdom of sincerity!
173    They knew that outward grace is dust;
174    They could not choose but trust
175In that sure-footed mind's unfaltering skill,
176        And supple-tempered will
177That bent like perfect steel to spring again and thrust.
178        His was no lonely mountain-peak of mind,
179        Thrusting to thin air o'er our cloudy bars,
180        A sea-mark now, now lost in vapors blind;
181        Broad prairie rather, genial, level-lined,
182        Fruitful and friendly for all human kind,
183Yet also nigh to Heaven and loved of loftiest stars.
184            Nothing of Europe here,
185Or, then, of Europe fronting mornward still,
186            Ere any names of Serf and Peer
187        Could Nature's equal scheme deface;
188        Here was a type of the true elder race,
189And one of Plutarch's men talked with us face to face.
190        I praise him not; it were too late;
191And some innative weakness there must be
192In him who condescends to victory
193Such as the Present gives, and cannot wait,
194        Safe in himself as in a fate.
195            So always firmly he:
196            He knew to bide his time,
197            And can his fame abide,
198Still patient in his simple faith sublime,
199                Till the wise years decide.
200    Great captains, with their guns and drums,
201            Disturb our judgment for the hour,
202                But at last silence comes;
203        These all are gone, and, standing like a tower,
204        Our children shall behold his fame,
205            The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man,
206    Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame,
207        New birth of our new soil, the first American.
208Long as man's hope insatiate can discern
209    Or only guess some more inspiring goal
210    Outside of Self, enduring as the pole,
211Along whose course the flying axles burn
212Of spirits bravely-pitched, earth's manlier brood;
213    Long as below we cannot find
214The meed that stills the inexorable mind;
215So long this faith to some ideal Good,
216    Under whatever mortal names it masks,
217    Freedom, Law, Country, this ethereal mood
218That thanks the Fates for their severer tasks,
219    Feeling its challenged pulses leap,
220    While others skulk in subterfuges cheap,
221And, set in Danger's van, has all the boon it asks,
222    Shall win man's praise and woman's love,
223    Shall be a wisdom that we set above
224All other skills and gifts to culture dear,
225    A virtue round whose forehead we inwreathe
226    Laurels that with a living passion breathe
227When other crowns grow, while we twine them, sear.
228    What brings us thronging these high rites to pay,
229And seal these hours the noblest of our year,
230    Save that our brothers found this better way?
231    We sit here in the Promised Land
232    That flows with Freedom's honey and milk;
233    But 't was they won it, sword in hand,
234Making the nettle danger soft for us as silk.
235    We welcome back our bravest and our best;
236    Ah me! not all! some come not with the rest,
237Who went forth brave and bright as any here!
238I strive to mix some gladness with my strain,
239        But the sad strings complain,
240        And will not please the ear;
241I sweep them for a pæan, but they wane
242    Again and yet again
243Into a dirge, and die away in pain.
244In these brave ranks I only see the gaps,
245Thinking of dear ones whom the dumb turf wraps,
246Dark to the triumph which they died to gain:
247    Fitlier may others greet the living,
248    For me the past is unforgiving;
249        I with uncovered head
250        Salute the sacred dead,
251Who went, and who return not. -- Say not so!
252'T is not the grapes of Canaan that repay,
253But the high faith that failed not by the way;
254Virtue treads paths that end not in the grave;
255No ban of endless night exiles the brave;
256    And to the saner mind
257We rather seem the dead that stayed behind.
258Blow, trumpets, all your exultations blow!
259For never shall their aureoled presence lack:
260I see them muster in a gleaming row,
261With ever-youthful brows that nobler show;
262We find in our dull road their shining track;
263        In every nobler mood
264We feel the orient of their spirit glow,
265Part of our life's unalterable good,
266Of all our saintlier aspiration;
267        They come transfigured back,
268Secure from change in their high-hearted ways,
269Beautiful evermore, and with the rays
270Of morn on their white Shields of Expectation!
271        But is there hope to save
272    Even this ethereal essence from the grave?
273    What ever 'scaped Oblivion's subtle wrong
274Save a few clarion names, or golden threads of song?
275        Before my musing eye
276        The mighty ones of old sweep by,
277    Disvoicëd now and insubstantial things,
278    As noisy once as we; poor ghosts of kings,
279    Shadows of empire wholly gone to dust,
280    And many races, nameless long ago,
281    To darkness driven by that imperious gust
282    Of ever-rushing Time that here doth blow:
283    O visionary world, condition strange,
284    Where naught abiding is but only Change,
285Where the deep-bolted stars themselves still shift and range!
286    Shall we to more continuance make pretence?
287Renown builds tombs; a life-estate is Wit;
288        And, bit by bit,
289The cunning years steal all from us but woe;
290    Leaves are we, whose decays no harvest sow.
291        But, when we vanish hence,
292    Shall they lie forceless in the dark below,
293    Save to make green their little length of sods,
294    Or deepen pansies for a year or two,
295    Who now to us are shining-sweet as gods?
296    Was dying all they had the skill to do?
297    That were not fruitless: but the Soul resents
298    Such short-lived service, as if blind events
299    Ruled without her, or earth could so endure;
300    She claims a more divine investiture
301    Of longer tenure than Fame's airy rents;
302    Whate'er she touches doth her nature share;
303    Her inspiration haunts the ennobled air,
304        Gives eyes to mountains blind,
305    Ears to the deaf earth, voices to the wind,
306    And her clear trump sings succor everywhere
307    By lonely bivouacs to the wakeful mind;
308    For soul inherits all that soul could dare:
309        Yea, Manhood hath a wider span
310    And larger privilege of life than man.
311    The single deed, the private sacrifice,
312    So radiant now through proudly-hidden tears,
313    Is covered up erelong from mortal eyes
314    With thoughtless drift of the deciduous years;
315    But that high privilege that makes all men peers,
316    That leap of heart whereby a people rise
317        Up to a noble anger's height,
318And, flamed on by the Fates, not shrink, but grow more bright,
319    That swift validity in noble veins,
320    Of choosing danger and disdaining shame,
321        Of being set on flame
322    By the pure fire that flies all contact base,
323But wraps its chosen with angelic might,
324        These are imperishable gains,
325    Sure as the sun, medicinal as light,
326    These hold great futures in their lusty reins
327And certify to earth a new imperial race.
328        Who now shall sneer?
329    Who dare again to say we trace
330    Our lines to a plebeian race?
331        Roundhead and Cavalier!
332Dumb are those names erewhile in battle loud;
333Dream-footed as the shadow of a cloud,
334    They flit across the ear:
335That is best blood that hath most iron in 't
336To edge resolve with, pouring without stint
337        For what makes manhood dear.
338    Tell us not of Plantagenets,
339Hapsburgs, and Guelfs, whose thin bloods crawl
340Down from some victor in a border-brawl!
341    How poor their outworn coronets,
342Matched with one leaf of that plain civic wreath
343Our brave for honor's blazon shall bequeath,
344    Through whose desert a rescued Nation sets
345Her heel on treason, and the trumpet hears
346Shout victory, tingling Europe's sullen ears
347    With vain resentments and more vain regrets!
348        Not in anger, not in pride,
349        Pure from passion's mixture rude
350        Ever to base earth allied,
351        But with far-heard gratitude,
352        Still with heart and voice renewed,
353    To heroes living and dear martyrs dead,
354The strain should close that consecrates our brave.
355        Lift the heart and lift the head!
356        Lofty be its mood and grave,
357        Not without a martial ring,
358        Not without a prouder tread
359        And a peal of exultation:
360        Little right has he to sing
361        Through whose heart in such an hour
362        Beats no march of conscious power,
363        Sweeps no tumult of elation!
364        'T is no Man we celebrate,
365        By his country's victories great,
366    A hero half, and half the whim of Fate,
367        But the pith and marrow of a Nation
368        Drawing force from all her men,
369        Highest, humblest, weakest, all,
370        For her time of need, and then
371        Pulsing it again through them,
372Till the basest can no longer cower,
373Feeling his soul spring up divinely tall,
374Touched but in passing by her mantle-hem.
375Come back, then, noble pride, for 't is her dower!
376        How could poet ever tower,
377        If his passions, hopes, and fears,
378        If his triumphs and his tears,
379        Kept not measure with his people?
380Boom, cannon, boom to all the winds and waves!
381Clash out, glad bells, from every rocking steeple!
382Banners, adance with triumph, bend your staves!
383    And from every mountain-peak
384    Let beacon-fire to answering beacon speak,
386And so leap on in light from sea to sea,
387        Till the glad news be sent
388        Across a kindling continent,
389Making earth feel more firm and air breathe braver:
390"Be proud! for she is saved, and all have helped to save her!
391    She that lifts up the manhood of the poor,
392    She of the open soul and open door,
393    With room about her hearth for all mankind!
394    The fire is dreadful in her eyes no more;
395    From her bold front the helm she doth unbind,
396    Sends all her handmaid armies back to spin,
397    And bids her navies, that so lately hurled
398    Their crashing battle, hold their thunders in,
399    Swimming like birds of calm along the unharmful shore.
400    No challenge sends she to the elder world,
401    That looked askance and hated; a light scorn
402    Plays o'er her mouth, as round her mighty knees
403    She calls her children back, and waits the morn
404Of nobler day, enthroned between her subject seas."
405Bow down, dear Land, for thou hast found release!
406    Thy God, in these distempered days,
407    Hath taught thee the sure wisdom of His ways,
408And through thine enemies hath wrought thy peace!
409        Bow down in prayer and praise!
410No poorest in thy borders but may now
411Lift to the juster skies a man's enfranchised brow.
412Beautiful! my Country! ours once more!
413Smoothing thy gold of war-dishevelled hair
414O'er such sweet brows as never other wore,
415        And letting thy set lips,
416        Freed from wrath's pale eclipse,
417The rosy edges of their smile lay bare,
418What words divine of lover or of poet
419Could tell our love and make thee know it,
420Among the Nations bright beyond compare?
421        What were our lives without thee?
422        What all our lives to save thee?
423        We reck not what we gave thee;
424        We will not dare to doubt thee,
425But ask whatever else, and we will dare!


385] Katahdin: the highest mountain in Maine at 5,268 feet.
Monadnock: a mountain of 3,165 in New Hampshire. Back to Line
RPO poem Editors: 
Data entry: Sharine Leung
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